Fire on Fire – The Orchard

fire-on-fire-orchardSome of the more interesting current music fads include MBV reconfigurations, usually with several ladies in the mix; the emergence of “hipster metal”; and lo-fi quirk-rock, of which there has been a steady underground that is righteously pissed at the success of johnny-fuzz-lately types like Wavves.

Sour fuzzy grapes aside, the cultural current that interests me most is the pastoral retreat, and not just because pretty girls in peasant dresses lends sensual surreality to any concert experience. It seemed to bubble and rumble in the wake of the beginnings of the Iraq War and no doubt will continue percolate through this whole temporary recession/destruction of everything and everyone period.* One response to having no discernible power is to withdraw from the culture and its trappings, and to look back at what was imagined to have been.

A kind of conservatism, even, which is the closest thing to a slur that you can bust out during these days of hope und change, and so I don’t engage in such madness lightly.

Mr. Keenan from The Wire called it “New Weird America”, and that works well enough for me.

Some of it I like quite a bit – Akron/Family, the clean vocal maturity of Vashti Bunyan, some Joanna Newsom, Six Organs of Admittance and definitely Mr. Oldham if you want to lump him in with this cultural current, even though he predates it by a while. Some of it is deeply unlistenable – the shitty, winking doo-wop of Fleet Foxes, whatever the hell Cocorosie is or the Sufjan Steven/Iron & Wine axis. (I don’t mind a lot of Devendra Banhart‘s recordings but his live show was pretty hellish, unless you really like Fleetwood Mac ’70s rock.***) A lot of it is kinda forgettable, particularly the animal-influenced naming thing and overbearingly twee cockups  we could blame on Animal Collective, but the underlying infantillism of that particular trend fits quite well into my overarching narrative.

Hypothesis: it is a kind of retreat, an escapism. Overall, it’s probably both mildly harmful and largely meaningless, a party driven by nostalgia for something that none of the participants actually experienced. I’m not quite going to go as far as these two 2007 savagings in Perfect Sound Forever (part 1 and part 2), as I’m not entirely sure that being white and pretty is nearly as devestating a critique as the author thinks it is, naturally. However, the overall points about the trappings of an alien otherness are worth thinking about, even if charges of capital-O Orientalism are overwrought and seem more bitter than biting.

Michael Gira, someone you could only accuse of having a truly dismal view of love, and perhaps by extension, relationships with women, helped birth so much of this particular cultural current that in a just world he’d have a medal named after him, or at least a decent retirement fund. Failing that, the guy who gave us both Banhart and Akron/Family is also giving us variations on this theme, and one of those variations is Fire on Fire, who used to be a post-punk band and are now a post-instruments you plug in band.

The solo-oriented female lyrical pieces by Colleen Kinsella are the least interesting on this album, something that’s true of the entirety of The Orchard – in a group, they have a very thick voice that rings across the spectrum of loud and soft and high and low. By themselves, it’s a bit too sing-songy, a bit too sardonic and ironic, and it sounds more like a put-on. It’s hard enough to buy the concept of backyard bluegrass without putting a cutesy twist on top. Compare the thick catchy refrain of “Toknight” or the dismal charge of album opener “Sirocco” to the listless swing of “Assanine Race”.

Musically, however, it’s damn near flawless. They are tighter than tight, and regardless of the socio-political implications of climbing backwards over a musical tradition birthed in poverty and racial animus and, well, lots of horrible shit, like most of human history.

As far as I can tell the album is only available through Young God Records’ website, along with a free download of “Hartford Blues”.

* I have actually heard people refer to the world having been broken by bankers, as if the financial universe in which we all participate on several levels is a mysterious, cthonic process directed by a few entities. The illusion of total control is incredibly real and perhaps a necessary human drive.**

** To parenthisize this parentheses, the converse would charge that my insistence on the world being a chaotic process of millions of vectors acting in millions of directions is my own version of the illusion of total non-control.

*** It should be pretty obvious that I couldn’t name a Fleetwood Mac song upon the pain of death, though I’ve no doubt heard them hundreds upon hundreds of times, but that’s the feeling I got from it.

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